George M. Johnson has joined BET Digital as guest editor for Pride Month. Look out for his weekly column and curation of editorials from queer Black writers this June. George is a writer, activist and columnist for Afropunk. His debut YA memoir, “All Boys Aren't Blue,” is set to be released April 28, 2020.
We will not be erased.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the protests led by trans women of color against the NYPD. The uprising, which took place in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, became known as the Stonewall Riots, setting the stage for what we now consider the starting point of the LGBT rights movement.
Over the years, we have seen that night commemorated as the first-ever Pride Parade and then evolve into Pride Month for all of June. Unfortunately, co-opting and capitalism have changed much of what that moment in history truly stands for, and have contributed to erasing a narrative that deserves a place in the lexicon of Black History.
Stonewall is Black History, and we have seen it co-opted by white activists as with the recent film by Roland Emmerich, which credited the movement to a cis white gay man. However, you can’t discuss the Stonewall Riots without speaking about the Black and brown people who led them — Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major and many others who led the six days of riots.
Now, corporations are capitalizing on it by throwing rainbows on products, all while ignoring or underpaying Black queer folk and turning a profit off the movement they built. Although I’ll never be upset at Black queer folk who work for corporations and organizations and are able to make a living off the commercialization of the movement, it is unfortunate that most of the queer communities of color who need funding and resources will get lost in this for-profit hustle.
As Raquel Willis, editor at OUT Magazine, put it, “If the gatekeepers of our community (those powerful, mostly white, cis, able-bodied wealthy nonprofit directors, CEOs, political insiders) really believed in what our ancestors and transcestors at Stonewall were fighting for, we would see more elevating of grassroots Black and Brown leadership, the people who actually carry the torches lit by the founders of our movement.”
Unfortunately, in this country, erasure of Black history is nothing new — nor are the ways in which white people consistently show up to create an alternate version much more beneficial and palatable to the idea of white supremacy. Slavery, for example, one of the most heinous acts in this country’s history, is now being depicted as something that we enjoyed (as in the children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington) rather than something we were forced into.
"I can only hope that one day, when we learn about the greatest heroes and stories in the Black community, Stonewall is right there. For many, it's Malcolm and Martin. But we can’t forget that for others it's Marsha and Miss Major— and they are all deserving of the story to be told."
We see monuments of Abraham Lincoln with a narrative of freeing the slaves in 1865 with absolutely no mention of the birth of Jim Crow laws that same year, or the systemic and institutionalized racism that seeps into nearly every aspect of society today. (As I often say, if Lincoln truly freed us, there would be no need for a civil rights movement nearly 100 years later, with a Black Lives Matter movement started just a few years ago.)
The story always seems to be changing. Time and time again we have seen white people get credit for movements and ideas created by Black folks. The reclaiming of this history often arrives years after the events have occurred and those leaders are no longer with us: for example, the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures was finally able to honor the Black women of NASA who helped us travel to the moon 50 years after the fact.
When the movie Stonewall was released in 2015, Black and brown (and some white) folks immediately called out the film for centering cis white gay males as the protagonists while erasing much of the Black involvement in the riots over those six days — going as far as having the first brick thrown at Stonewall coming from a white man. Although many have debated whether it was Marsha who threw the brick that evening, no one has come to the conclusion that it was a white gay male.
This erasing of our history was an attempt to once again paint white queer people in a light that many Black queer folx reject. To make it plain, being queer doesn’t negate their whiteness, nor the decades of racism and antagonism that has come towards Black queer folx from that community. Although it is true that on that evening there were Black, brown and white queer folks in the fight, the leaders, and most vocal voices afterwards, were Black and brown.
Unfortunately, it is now on us as Black and brown folks across all identity and gender lines to reclaim Stonewall as ours — a fight against the continued attempts to whitewash our story. Stonewall wasn’t just a queer rights movement, but a civil rights movement. The intersection of Blackness and queerness can’t be ignored.
Fighting for queer rights is also fighting for Black rights, and we do a disservice in separating those fights when we have people who live at those intersections. Stonewall is just as important in the lexicon of Black history as any other movement led by people who look like us — we can’t participate in that erasure.
It was announced recently that after nearly 50 years, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera would finally receive their monuments — something that is long overdue. I can only hope that one day, when we learn about the greatest heroes and stories in the Black community, Stonewall is right there, too.
For many, it's Malcolm and Martin. But we can’t forget that for others, it's Marsha and Miss Major — and they are all deserving of the story to be told.
(Photo: Diana Davies / Courtesy of New York Public Library)
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